The fact that we disagree — even strongly — isn’t what damages personal or professional relationships. It’s how well we make use of practices that buffer our vital relationships from the detrimental effects of conflict. In other words, it’s how well we safeguard “the space between” through the way we disagree.
The space between is the figurative space between us and those with whom we interact. I began using the term after reading a work by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who said,
The space between narrows and softens when we are in right relationship, and widens and hardens in times of tension.
I like the mental image of the space between because it helps remind us where to put our energy even when we don’t feel particularly warm and fuzzy toward someone. We may not feel much like tending to their needs when they’re irritating us, but we can nevertheless understand the benefit of preventing damage to the space between. We grasp that the space between touches us as much as it touches them.
The space between and our vital relationships
I think of the space between as something to be safeguarded and tended particularly in those vital relationships that matter most to us — our beloveds, colleagues, close friends, and so on.
A healthy space between doesn’t come from avoiding conflict as the go-to approach. When we avoid sorting out the things that really matter, we risk the very outcome we’re trying to prevent: Damage to the personal or professional relationship. Damage from conflict avoidance takes many forms, from distancing spirals to figurative snakes under the rug to gravity problems.
A healthy space between comes not from avoiding conflict, but from the way the way we engage when we disagree — from, as Haidt might say, getting the conditions right. Conflict handled well can actually benefit the relationship (more on this in a moment) and make it better than new.
Getting the conditions right
I thought I’d share with you some of the ways I try to get the conditions right to safeguard the space between me and those whose relationships I care about most. I don’t always get it right, but when I find my reaction or response wanting, I try to build better “muscle memory” for next time by keeping the practice front-of-mind in lower-stakes situations.
These practices are as applicable at work as they are at home:
Try to notice when conflict is real but not true. What we feel about a person or a situation sometimes isn’t grounded in actual present experiences but is instead prompted by residual memories of a past experience with them or with that kind of disagreement. Teaching ourselves to discern the difference is one of the very best ways to safeguard the space between. More →
Hold the space. Holding the space means being fully present in spirit and attention, even if their suffering (their anger, their upset, their coldness) disturbs us and makes us want to distance ourselves from it or try to fix it. In disagreements, holding the space means allowing them the opportunity to fully express what’s on their mind without filling their air time with our own views and wants. More →
Focus on “getting” them. And I don’t mean in the vengeful way. Research suggests that when our conversation partner feels like we “get them,” it not only helps both parties recover better from the conflict but also benefits the relationship for the long run. In other words, it strengthens the space between. More →
Consider the three threads in every argument. What do you need to “get,” exactly? Oprah Winfrey famously said, “All arguments are really about the same thing: Did you hear me? Did you see me? And did what I say mean anything to you?” Try keeping these three threads in your mind when you find yourself in a disagreement; they’ll help anchor your contributions. More →
Ask yourself a good question. It’s natural to ascribe causes and motivations to others’ actions. The problem comes from failing to differentiate our theory from data that actually confirms it. Teach yourself to pause your reaction just long enough to ask yourself, “What else could this be?” You’ll save yourself (and them) needless suffering. More →
Ask yourself more good questions. Certain kinds of questions are invaluable for navigating disagreement and conflict better. I took my favorites and created online QueryCards you can bookmark and scroll through any time you need help sorting out your thoughts and feelings about a difficult conversation. More →
Get apologies right. “I’m sorry you feel that way” and its many pitiful derivations — seen too frequently uttered by famous people who acted badly — are just wasted breath. Research suggests there are two particularly important ingredients in effective apologies: Acknowledgement of responsibility and offer of repair. More here and here →
A special note for the mediators reading this: I recommend using many of these practices not only in your own life but also with your mediation clients. Hold the space for them. Try to really “get” them. Coach them in a good apology if they want to offer one. Use the questions I suggested to help them think through their situation and their options.